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South African President Jacob Zuma gestures before making a speech in this still image taken from video courtesy of the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) at the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, also known as Soccer City, during former South African President Nelson Mandela's national memorial service in Johannesburg, December 10, 2013.Reuters

The world's leaders came to Johannesburg to honour a revered hero. Instead they found themselves enmeshed in a rowdy South African political drama – a reminder that Nelson Mandela's democracy is still boisterously alive.

The political theatrics were rude, irreverent, perhaps inappropriate and certainly undiplomatic. But while dignitaries from more than 100 countries watched uncomfortably, thousands of South Africans erupted into loud boos and jeers at every glimpse of their president, Jacob Zuma, at the Mandela memorial.

Scores of global leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, gathered in unprecedented numbers in the vast soccer stadium on Tuesday to pay their respects to Mr. Mandela, the beloved anti-apartheid fighter and first democratically elected president of South Africa, who died last week at the age of 95.

Mr. Obama praised Mr. Mandela as "a magnificent soul" and "great liberator" who "makes me want to be a better man." United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed him as "one of the greatest teachers" who "showed the awesome power of forgiveness."

Yet while the soaring oratory was impressive, it was the obstreperous crowd of nearly 60,000 people that stole the show – reminding the world that Mr. Mandela bequeathed a feisty and spirited democracy to his once-oppressed nation.

The persistent heckling of the scandal-plagued Mr. Zuma – coupled with massive cheers for his rival, ex-president Thabo Mbeki – was a stunning and embarrassing blow to the South African leader. There were similar jeers at a stadium in Soweto where the memorial was broadcast on a giant screen. The ruling party, the African National Congress, swiftly denounced the booing as "despicable and unbecoming."

Yet the brazen rebellion against Mr. Zuma was symbolic of the culture of unruly politics in South Africa, a culture that Mr. Mandela's political movement has helped to entrench. This freedom to be politically insubordinate was one of the achievements of Mr. Mandela that often goes unnoticed when he is praised for his humility and humor.

As the booing continued, Mr. Zuma sat with a stony expression, removing his glasses and vigorously cleaning them. The ANC's deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, pleaded with the crowd to show "discipline" and restrain their outbursts – a plea that was widely ignored.

Political analysts said they were astonished at the booing, which seemed to emanate from middle-class members of the ANC itself. Crowd members later said the vocal expression of anger was spurred by several controversies, including a new government scheme to impose hefty highway tolls around Johannesburg and Pretoria.

"This does mark some sort of turning point," political commentator Stephen Grootes wrote after the memorial. "If people are prepared to show their frustration with Zuma during the funeral of Nelson Mandela, imagine if it had been a mere sporting event."

Another embarrassment for Mr. Zuma came from the thousands of empty seats at the memorial in the 95,000-seat stadium, the same venue that had been packed full for the World Cup in 2010 when Mr. Mandela made his final appearance in public.

Mr. Zuma's government, worried about the risk of dangerous stampedes or crushes at the memorial, had tried to dampen the numbers by urging people from other regions to stay away. It also refused to declare a public holiday, so most people went to their jobs as usual on Tuesday. Transport problems, and the steady rain that fell on Johannesburg for the entire day, also helped to reduce the turnout.

But the thousands who did attend the memorial were undeterred by the heavy rain, the chilly temperatures and the long train delays. Florence Kganye, a school principal, woke up at 4 a.m. on Tuesday and saw the poor weather. "I said, 'Raining or not, I must come here,'" she explained after a four-hour trek to the stadium.

"This is the end of an era, a beautiful era that Nelson Mandela gave us," said her friend, Monica Buthelezi.

The loudest and most prolonged cheers at the memorial were reserved for Mr. Obama, who gave an eloquent speech, despite the commotion caused by the booing of Mr. Zuma just moments earlier.

"There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," Mr. Obama said, using Mr. Mandela's affectionate clan name.

"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard."

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, chatted with leaders from Australia, Britain and New Zealand at the memorial and in an earlier breakfast meeting, but he was not among the small group of leaders invited to speak on stage.

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